Two of the most popular freshwater predator game fish this time of the year are walleye and northern pike.
For both these species, it’s a transition time from their summer habits to the beginning of the “fattening-up” time in preparation for the long winter, and these habits can generate some excellent fishing in numbers and size.
Those who’ve followed The Daily Gazette’s fishing forecasts, especially during the fall and hard water angling, know waters like Great Sacandaga Lake, Saratoga Lake and the Mohawk River all have good walleye and northern pike catches every year — definitely better than their summer catches.
But to take full advantage of this feeding frenzy, there are a few tactics, techniques and lure/live bait choices that can put a trophy on your wall and/or on the dinner table. Here are a few tips from some of the pros and veteran ’eye and pike anglers that you can try.
Water depth is very important this time of the year, and veteran fishers say they limit their fishing to no more that 20 feet, primarily because these fish are continuously on the move. As the water temperatures drop, the fish move into warmer shallows. However, some anglers prefer a water depth of 15 feet when they fish rivers, shoals, humps and islands which all provide food sources for walleyes.
In our area, the Mohawk River and the Great Sacandaga Lake have all of these types of holding structures and should be fished in the fall. River mouths, for example, offer very good opportunities to catch walleyes right now. Additionally, the currents on these rivers attract plenty of walleyes that can be caught from a boat or shore around many of the Mohawk’s locks.
Weedlines like those at Saratoga Lake are targeted by fall walleye anglers, but it seems that early morning, just prior to sunup, or nighttime are two of the best times to fish for walleyes. The main reason for fishing when it’s dark is that walleyes have very sensitive eyes and therefore, on sunny fall days, they’d remain rather deep. But when the light dims, they move in. One good way to find the depth walleyes are holding at is to zigzag from depths of three to 15 feet. Generally, this depth is where there’s a large concentration of baitfish, so use a depth/fish finder.
Lure choices are many. I’ve learned one of the most popular lures for fall walleyes is the crankbait, which will allow covering a lot of water in a short period of time. As for color, the fly-fisherman’s rule of thumb, “match the hatch,” applies. It means matching baitfish sizes, actions and colors that are found in the lake/river being fished. Shad, perch, silver/black are all good color choices, but most of the pros will tell you, “The best color is the one they’re biting now.” The shape most agree on is long-profile cranks, five to seven inches, which would include the Rapala, Bomber, etc., and if they have rattles, even better.
Presentation can be casting or trolling. Obviously, casting allows working an area thoroughly, whereas trolling covers more water. It seems the majority of these experts prefer to troll first. After a walleye is caught, they usually work the area, casting a crankbait, or even bottom-bouncing a three-eighths-ounce white or black bucktail jig. Walleyes are schoolers, and you don’t want to run away from fish.
There’s another technique I honestly was not aware of — frogging for walleyes. When the frost begins to settle on the ground, frogs begin to migrate from land to water, where they eventually hibernate in the mud. The migration only lasts a few days, but if you can sync with their nighttime migration, the fishing can be outstanding. So don’t put that big rubber frog away just yet. If you try this and are successful, please let me know.
Another technique several pros mentioned which I hadn’t heard of either (and am really not sure I agree with), is what they call “confusion” — tempting the walleyes with something they don’t often see, such as a redtail (hornyhead) chub — a delicacy for them. An idea I do like is the spinner and worm rig my uncle taught me to use when I was 10. We caught quite a few Saratoga Lake walleyes and even a few big northerns.
This is another of the freshwater predator fish in this area that offers big catches in the fall. I can’t think of any other fish that offers more excitement on the end of a line than a 30-plus-inch pike that grabs your lure/bait and heads off with it. Whatever the rod, it will definitely be bent, and you’ll be smiling throughout the battle. Right now, baitfish are beginning to school and move into their spawning grounds, and the pike aren’t far behind.
Popular TV fishing host Babe Winkleman says that fall pike fishing is his favorite, and he offers some advice on how he catches them. He suggests first becoming very familiar with the water being fished, by reading a map and/or using a depth finder. Look for steep breaks where the shallow water drops off into deep structure. For weedy waters, like Saratoga and Cossayuna lakes, and the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, troll the edges, concentrating on the green weeds and paying special attention to weed points and inside turns. These are places pike hide, waiting to ambush prey.
Rocks are another fall holding area where pike will be feeding, particularly if they’re off a predominant point. The biggest northern pike I ever caught was a 39 1⁄2-incher taken on a Jitterbug in early October, fishing an island point over deep-water rocks on Saranac Lake. Two days later, when I returned to that same point, I caught a 30-inch pike on a red-and-white Dardevle spoon. According to Winkleman, the winds create water movement that pushes bait into these points, and that’s why the pike are there.
Fall artificial lure choices for pike are also big. Preferred are nine-inch jerk baits, both hard and soft, colored in firetiger, perch, red/white and white with gray backs. Also popular are big spoons, the new paddletail swim baits and big bucktail jigs. As always, those big, flashy, half-ounce, double-bladed spinner baits trailed with a four- to five-inch white twister tail should get some attention. I’d like to add the musky and pike Mepps spinner baits to this list.
Trolling speed can be important. Begin at 2.5 miles per hour and don’t worry, the pike can very easily catch and eat your bait. Pike can create a speed burst from 20-40 mph. It’s better if you don’t use rod holders while trolling. You’ll get more hits if you continuously work the lure with quick hard jerks, steady pull-and-drop movements and erratic twitching. All these will get attention, and when they hit, the rod and reel will already be in hand.
I’d like to offer one more bait option, which you’ll laugh at, I’m sure, but with which I actually did well in a Capital Bassmaster club pike tournament on Saratoga Lake quite a few years ago. The previous evening, I cut the hair off my daughter’s Barbie doll. My wife was a bit mad when she saw me tying eight-inch pieces of the hair to large hooks and half-ounce jig heads with a drop of Crazy Glue to keep the hair in place.
I felt a little embarrassed and didn’t tie them on my line until the last two hours of the tournament, when I had only one small pike in the boat. I swore my boat partner, Sam Mormino of Schenectady, to secrecy, and in the next hour or so, I boated and even culled a few pike caught with this Barbie jig. I made long casts, let it sink a bit and then reeled and pumped it back to the boat. Every fish that hit, hit hard. I believe I finished third in the tournament and wished I had started out the day using it. However, I had to buy another Barbie doll for my daughter with my winnings. Next time you see a Barbie doll at a garage sale, you might want to buy it and try this new jig.
Next week in the fishing forecast, I’ll have more fall walleye and pike tips and techniques two local veteran anglers will have shared with me.
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